One of the most influential economists of the last 50 years died over the weekend. Gary Becker was 83. He had taught at the University of Chicago since the late 1960s. In 1992, he won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering application of economic theory to social questions.

NPR's John Ydstie has more on Gary Becker's legacy.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Becker was a giant in the field of economics. One of his students and eventual colleagues, Steven Levitt, took a look at which economist in recent years had inspired the most research by other economists. Levitt, the co-author of the best-selling book "Freakanomics," found that Becker was by far the most often cited. Part of the reason for his influence was that Becker pushed the use of economic theory into the social realm, studying marriage, drug addiction, crime and racial discrimination.

In an interview on this program on the day he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992, he talked about the marriage market.

GARY BECKER: It's not an organized market the way the stock market is or a bazaar is in the Middle East, but it's a market nevertheless with the property that there are different people in this who are looking to get married. Not everybody can marry the same wonderful man or woman, and they have to make choices. And they may have met somebody who they're pretty happy with. They wonder about whether if they'd waited they'd meet somebody better, and these are the kinds of choices one makes in other markets. So using market as a metaphor, but I think it's a very good metaphor for what goes on here.

YDSTIE: Becker basically argued that people operate as rational agents in every aspect of life. That sparked controversy when he concluded that many people who choose a life of crime are making a rational choice based on opportunities, risks, and rewards.

BECKER: You know, the man and woman on the street wouldn't find that very surprising at all. It's the intellectuals usually who are so surprised by that simple idea, that, yes, crime is, you know, a response to choice.

YDSTIE: So he concluded, deterring crime requires increasing the cost or punishment. His own choice to park illegally when he was late for an appointment sparked Becker's research in this area. Becker was a student of the free market champion Milton Friedman, also a University of Chicago professor. Like Friedman, Becker was a skeptic of government interference in markets, including redistribution of incomes to reduce rising inequality in the U.S. Here he is in 2007.

BECKER: I think inequality in earnings has been mainly the good kind. I strongly believe it's been mainly the good kind.

YDSTIE: The view that inequality is good was partially based on Becker's research on human capital, and the need to incentivize investments in education.

BECKER: If you're in an environment where knowledge counts for so much, then if you don't have much knowledge, you're going to be a loser.

YDSTIE: Allowing more-educated workers to earn more and keep more of their incomes incentivizes others to get more education and adds to their human capital. That's better for them, and for the whole society Becker argued. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Becker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President George W. Bush. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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